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The Seedy Underside of Noir

Contrary to the prevailing wisdom in much of the publishing industry, short fiction continues to thrive in our humble corner of the businessshort fiction continues to thrive in our humble corner of the business. When we published Brooklyn Noir on a whim (and a prayer) in the summer of 2004, our intention was to shine a light on the seedy underside of our hometown borough, providing snapshots of what lurks just beneath the surface of both our shared and personal experiences, in a kind of "anti–travel guide" format — each story takes place within a distinct neighborhood of Brooklyn, affording the opportunity for a reader to explore the murky (and sometimes unlikely) corners where criminality thrives. (To this day, Pete Hamill's Edgar-nominated contribution to the volume, "The Book Signing," compels me to look over my shoulder when descending the escalator at the Barnes & Noble in Park Slope — a part of town known more for its murderous real-estate prices than its unwholesomeness — whenever we host author events there.) But we were very quickly blindsided by the incredible critical and commercial response to the book, and realized that we had a gem of an idea on our hands. A follow-up to the original volume, Brooklyn Noir 2: The Classics, airing 100 years of the borough's dirty laundry, was published the following year. D.C. and Baltimore Noir, shepherded by George Pelecanos and Laura Lippman, respectively, emerged soon after. Spreading like a virus, the series then infected each corner of the country, from Miami to the Pacific Northwest and all stops in between, before migrating to international destinations like Delhi, Havana, and Istanbul — always under the careful orchestration of editors that know the alleyways and gutters of their home cities inside out. The noir impulse transcends borders, ethnic and political identities, and, to the surprise of some, literary genresThe noir impulse transcends borders, ethnic and political identities, and, to the surprise of some, literary genres, manifesting itself in ways that are particular to the sordid pockets that exist in every urban center.

Yet the great beauty of the Akashic Noir Series — now numbering thirty volumes, with more than fifteen others in various stages of production — is the sheer quantity of talented writers (450-plus by my estimation) whose work has appeared in print; so much for the death of the short story. While I tend to recoil when asked to offer a catchall definition of "noir," I'm pleased to report that our series mercifully resists such stultifying categorization. Sure, a good handful of the stories carry the heavy burden of bringing the spirit of noir pioneers like Chandler and Hammett into the new century — more often than not with great aplomb and dexterity. Some writers use the tried-and-true techniques of good mystery writing to tell their tales, while others dig deep into their own warped worldviews for inspiration.Some writers use the tried-and-true techniques of good mystery writing to tell their tales, while others dig deep into their own warped worldviews for inspiration. If there is a unifying theme between all of the stories in the series, it is one of dislocation (in all its forms) and the corresponding effects it has on the human psyche. But the range, breadth, and depth of the series is staggering, with literary heavyweights and previously unpublished authors dueling it out under the same covers. That each story was commissioned expressly for its respective volume underscores the vitality of the series: had we not published these books, 450 unique stories that reflect the viciousness and inequity of daily life would never have been conceived, and countless readers would have had to look elsewhere for what the very best of writing aspires toward: a mirror that allows one to better understand his or her own life and immediate surroundings.

Another invaluable (yet indirect) result of the Noir Series has been the relationships that we have developed over the years with various editors and contributors to the individual titles. To wit, the first chapter of Maggie Estep's brand-new novel Alice Fantastic — one of the most engaging first chapters that one will ever have the pleasure of reading — had its genesis in her Queens Noir story of the same name. We've also had the great privilege of publishing several other novels by Noir Series veterans that all rank among the best work we've ever released: South by South Bronx by Abraham Rodriguez, All or Nothing by Preston L. Allen, and Anna In-Between by Elizabeth Nunez. On that note, perhaps the most exhilarating book I've read in recent memory, Better, a harrowing posthumous novel by the supremely talented John O'Brien (Leaving Las Vegas), had been languishing in oblivion until the we came into contact with his family upon the publication of Las Vegas Noir.

In an attempt to uphold our commitment to the short form, we'll be publishing Boston Noir this November under the editorial direction of one of the most gifted writers of our generation, Dennis Lehane. In the slightly more distant future, Edwidge Danticat will place her stamp on Haiti Noir. (Another dozen forthcoming volumes can be found here.) From this vantage point, the future of noir fiction looks very bright indeed.

÷ ÷ ÷

Ibrahim Ahmad has worked in various capacities for Akashic Books since 2000, where he is now senior editor. He resides in Brooklyn, New York.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Portland Noir (Akashic Noir)
    Used Trade Paper $7.95
  2. Brooklyn Noir Used Trade Paper $5.95
  3. Miami Noir (Akashic Noir) Used Trade Paper $4.95
  4. Brooklyn Noir 2: The Classics New Trade Paper $16.95
  5. Havana Noir (Akashic Noir) New Trade Paper $16.95
  6. Delhi Noir (Akashic Noir) Used Trade Paper $6.95
  7. Baltimore Noir Used Trade Paper $9.50
  8. D.C. Noir (Akashic Noir) Used Trade Paper $5.95
  9. Istanbul Noir (Akashic Noir) New Trade Paper $15.95
  10. Alice Fantastic New Trade Paper $15.25
  11. Queens Noir (Akashic Noir) New Trade Paper $15.25
  12. South by South Bronx Used Trade Paper $5.50
  13. All or Nothing Used Trade Paper $1.25
  14. Anna In-Between Used Hardcover $2.50
  15. Better Sale Trade Paper $4.98
  16. Leaving Las Vegas Used Trade Paper $4.50
  17. Las Vegas Noir (Akashic Noir) New Trade Paper $15.25

Ibrahim Ahmad is the author of Portland Noir (Akashic Noir)

One Response to "The Seedy Underside of Noir"

    KevinS June 14th, 2009 at 1:53 pm

    That's very interesting about the John O'Brien book.

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